History: Women at war

The difficult and hugely important work carried out by women in the First World War too often goes unremarked. Marsali Taylor explores the contribution of Shetland women to the war effort.

As soon as war was declared, the Shetland Women’s Suffrage Society formed the Emergency Helpers, with the SWSS Chairman, Harriet Leisk, as convenor, and Jessie Mitchell as the first secretary/treasurer. The group had a committee of 17, and 50 other women were registered as helpers, all from Lerwick. They met on Saturdays from 4pm to 8pm in the old Post Office on Commercial Street. In her speech winding up the Emergency Helpers in May 1919, Mrs Leisk gave details of their work. They had begun by collecting old linen, cotton and underclothes. A house-to-house visitation was made to ask what each household would do in case of necessity. Some promised beds and beddings, others undertook to take convalescents, and a few placed their houses at the disposal of the Authorities if required.  Screens, hot water bottles and all things necessary for the comfort of the sick were freely offered.

They had daily (later, weekly) meetings to prepare surgical dressings and knit comforts: “It was truly a busy scene, day after day, some rolling bandages, others mending clothes or knitting.” They also held nursing and first aid classes: “Drs Graham and McVittie kindly undertook to give first-aid and ambulance lectures, which were well attended. Mrs Duncan and Mrs Morrison kindly lectured and gave practical lessons upon nursing.”

Mrs Leisk detailed the clothing knitted and donated. By the end of the war they had supplied over 2,400 articles to servicemen, the Gilbert Bain Hospital, the Fever Hospital, the Church Army Hut and Dr Walker’s Hospital, as well as making 2,427 bandages. They collected used clothing, which was given to men and women from ships torpedoed in Shetland waters, and from April 1917 they took up duty at the Church Army Hut in Lerwick (on the Alexandra Wharf), giving first aid, food and clothing to rescued men and women. They carried on there until the hut was closed on 10 April 1919.

“We worked on shifts of about three hours, two ladies to each shift, from 10am to 9pm, and later when necessary. We were several times called out at night or early morning to prepare food and clothing for crews of torpedoed ships, and truly it was a pitiful sight to see men landed, often in the thinnest clothing, the water pouring from them, and blue with cold, having more often than not been in open boats for hours in a bitter east wind and rain. We all felt thankful to be able to do all we could for the men who, just as surely as the men in France, saved our nation from ruin. (Applause).”

Emergency Helper members also tended the graves of naval men buried in Lerwick:  “The graves of the men who were killed in the raid upon the Norwegian convoy were in a disgraceful state, the sods just heaped upon them. Mrs Menzies and Misses Mitchell and Jamieson [Christina Jamieson of Sandness, the founding spirit of the SWSS] undertook to attend to them. The initial work was too heavy for women, and they asked for one or two R.N.R. men to do the heaviest work. The answer they met was that no man could be spared to do it. Misses Mitchell and Jamieson worked away rather than see them left a standing disgrace to the town. After they had got all the heavy work done and the graves in order, they received word that the authorities would take charge of them. Truly a case of putting the cart before the horse.” (Shetland News, 24 April 1919).

Nursing volunteers from Shetland

“Our next ambition,” Mrs Leisk said, “was to provide a Lerwick bed in France. You may remember the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Society offering to provide and staff a hospital in France. The War Office declined the offer, as they did also the help offered by the V.A.D.  The Government were perfectly able to provide for all wounded men likely to require treatment. Naturally the offer was made to France, and was accepted with open arms, and, every assistance given, “Royaumont” became one of the best equipped and most up-to-date hospitals in France, the whole staff being women. We raised £204 12/- and paid for a Lerwick bed there for four years, ending in December 1919. (Applause).”

The Scottish Women’s Field Hospital was founded by Dr Elsie Inglis, who’d visited Shetland in 1913, and funded by the National Union of Suffrage Societies. By October 1914, enough money had been raised to form the first two units, at Royaumont and in Serbia, and their progress was reported in the NUWSS magazine, The Common Cause. Miss Bury, Shetland’s last suffrage visitor, was the organising secretary, Personnel Committee and Edinburgh, in charge of passports and travelling arrangements for members of hospital units going overseas, and a Lerwick woman, Mrs Hacon, was one of the first volunteers there.

The newly-acquired Abbaye de Royaumont was described as “some nine miles from Chantilly, a fine house, with ample accommodation, good drainage and water supply, and electric lighting.” It had previously been a convent, and had been empty for ten years.

“In surroundings of medieval grandeur – amid vaulted corridors, Gothic refectories and cloisters – we proceeded to camp out with what we carried. The abbey in all its magnificance was ours; but during these first few days it did not offer us very much beyond magnificence and shelter . . . Its water supply had been practically cut off when the nuns left it for Begium.  Hence we carried water in buckets up imposing stairways . . . our only available stove was naturally short-tempered at first . . . our equipment was in no hurry to arrive; until it arrived we did without sheets and blankets, wrapped ourselves round in rugs and overcoats at night, and did not do much undressing . . . One thing I should like to impress on those who have contributed is the pleasure of the folk round here when they learn that our hospital is intended primarily for the service of their own people . . . ‘nos petits soldats’”  (Cecily Hamilton, The Common Cause, 17 December 1914). The French authorities were sufficiently impressed by the standards of care to ask the women to set up a typhoid hospital as well – typhus was rife at this point, and The Common Cause of 16 April 1915 announced the death of a third woman worker in the Serbian unit. A fifth ward was opened in April.

Mrs Hacon was mentioned in an article by Miss Vera Collum, clerk of the “vetements” department at Royaumont. When the wounded were brought in all their possessions were carefully stored, and their clothes washed and repaired. The linen items were mended by Madame Fox. “We ourselves tackle the uniforms with the noble assistance of Mrs Hacon, an NU worker well known in the Shetlands, through whose ingenuity I have seen the ‘veste’ of an artilleryman, minus half a sleeve, made into a wondrous garment with warm woollen cuffs – all because there was nothing in the world to mend it with but a pair of navy-blue bedsocks – and an old scarlet sock repair a breach made by shrapnel in a pair of infantryman’s trousers.

“Indeed, we are earning a good name for this Women’s Hospital for turning out our men not only mended in body but repaired in equipment . . . It sounds prosaic, but if only people at home knew the moral and physical importance of a clean set of underlinen and cleansed uniform to these poor fellows, who have to go back, most of them, to face the mud and misery, the monotony, and the filth of trench life again.”  (The Common Cause, 21 May 1915)

Other Shetland women nursed in France. Two sisters, Martha and Jessie Aitken of Burgh Road, were Red Cross nurses. Jessie was stationed in Aberdeen, and Martha went to Boulogne. Her letters home were published in the Shetland News: “Nurse Martha Aitken, writing to her parents in Lerwick, says, ‘Just a short note to say I am perfectly well and safe. All the fighting is in this direction at present, and I am sure Hell could not be worse. We are very, very busy. The men tell some ghastly tales of the cruelties of the Germans to our poor wounded and helpless men. Every man who can fight should be here to avenge the fallen. I will write when I can, don’t expect a letter as long as this lasts.’”  (Shetland News, 29 May 1915; this was the end of the second battle of Ypres, and a month after the first use of poison gas.)

Her second letter is much longer: “Many a time I thank goodness I am a trained woman and able to do my little bit for my country. These men (the soldiers) are expected to do their best, and they do it, and why not the women too? Often I wish I were a man and then I would be of more use. It makes my blood boil to read of these slackers at home, who don’t believe, even yet, that there is a war out here or anywhere else. It is no picnic for the men in the fighting-line, and no one who has been there can want to face an attack again, but still they are too manly to shirk their duty.

“When I used to watch the firing-line on a dark night, many thoughts passed through my mind. It was an awful picture, even in one’s imagination, what destruction one bomb could do, and what a caravan of agony would come, like greyhounds, to this clearing station in a few hours’ time.

“Here, it is the fever-stricken ones who come under my care [she had charge of a ward of 22 beds]. They are splendid fellows, and never utter a single word of complaint. One poor fellow has enteric fever and face wounds as well. One eye was blown out, and the sight of the other very much injured. Yet he never utters one word of complaint. It almost makes me weep to look at him. But he is a fine fellow and we like him so much.

“One Scotch boy” she proceeds, “was quite delirious, and talked and rambled away all day and night. One time he was at home and another moment in a charge. Poor thing, he was distressed about his pals, and in his delirium kept on beseeching me to ‘pull me out of this awful mud. I’m sticking – choking.’ He had such a look of entreaty and struggled to get out of bed. Then he would see a bomb coming and would call out to someone to save his pals. Again, he would fancy someone had been killed, and he must avenge his death. Then anyone who was with him came in for a severe mauling. I got several. It was so sad to see him, and yet occasionally he would say something so comical that it was beyond every one of us to keep from laughing.

“We are all under canvas here, and it is frightfully cold at times. On a windy night when in bed I often picture my house blowing away and my belongings being scattered to the four winds of heaven. The canvas shakes and flaps, the tent pole rocks and sways, and every minute is making a bigger hole for itself. Then the canvas gets on top of my head and bed. That finishes me, out of bed I hop, and hunt for an unoccupied bed in the compound. Usually one of the night sisters comes in handy. The sergeant on duty is then hunted for, and he pegs up my house again and life is resumed till the next gale arrives.

“It is the limit to try and find one’s way on a dark night. Many a nasty bruise I have got by tripping over tent pegs and ropes. One moment on one’s feet and the next wallowing, like a pig, in the thick mud.

“One night I was lying asleep and dreaming I was standing on the Slate’s Pier, and that the rain was beating on my face. I awoke and discovered that the rain was coming through the canvas in fine style and pattering on my face. My bed could not be moved, as there was no room, so up I got and put my mackintosh on in bed, my souwester on my head, and held up my umbrella. I could not get the latter fixed, so had to hold it in position and sleep at the same time. I did both, and was none the worse. What life, and yet I love it!” (Shetland News, 2 December 1915)

Aitken was awarded the “Mons Star” for her work during those early months of the war.

The huge scale of the casualties meant that hospitals at the front were only for the severely wounded, or for those who would soon be able to go back to the front. Troopships were bringing large numbers of wounded men home within weeks of the war beginning, and hospitals here could not cope either; a number of new ones had to be opened, and halls and schools also had to be used. Several women from Shetland enlisted in the nursing units attached to the army, which had field posts overseas and hospitals at home. Margaret Louisa Robertson, from Scalloway, was a staff nurse in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service at the Naval Hospital in Gosport. Margaret Sandison, Chromate Lane, was a nursing sister in the smaller Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service at the Haslar Royal Naval Hospital, Gosport, an existing pre-war military hospital.

Nellie Gilbertson was a sister in the Territorial Force Nursing Service, stationed in 1915 at the 5th Northern General hospital, Leicester; this was a Territorial Force hospital, with beds for 111 officers and 2,847 other ranks. Gilbertson was to receive the Royal Red Cross in 1917. This was awarded only to a fully trained nurse who had shown exceptional bravery and devotion at her post of duty during an incident. The medal was a golden cross, enamelled red; it can be seen, pinned to her scarlet and grey uniform, in the Shetland Museum.

Jean Yule, from Scalloway was a Medical Orderly attached to the RAMC Military Hospital at Colchester. Like Haslar, this was an existing pre-war military hospital at Aldershot. When war broke out, she was in her early thirties; after the war she qualified as a doctor.

Canteen work

The huge numbers of men recruited into the army also needed to be fed. Canteens were established at training camps, transit points and overseas. Mrs Ellen Hepworth, Parkfield Rd, Lerwick, was an adjutant, Salvation Army Hut, for three and a half years. The Salvation Army (SA) established a number of front-line posts to offer comforts to the troops, not the officers, and their website gives several accounts of what her life would have been like. One description of an SA officer’s work at war ranges from frying sausages and making endless cups of tea to the harder tasks of writing letters for wounded soldiers, laying flowers on graves for relatives at home, visiting military hospitals and conducting services. SA huts offered mending services and bible classes as well as tea and home-bakes.

Three of the Stout sisters of Medical Hall, Lerwick, were involved in canteen work. Elizabeth spent the last two years of the war in France, first helping in a canteen in Dormans, then became an assistant nurse in a hospital under the auspices of the Croix Rouge Francaise. Anne did voluntary work with the Scottish Churches Canteens in Cologne for the British Army of Occupation. Margaret taught in the East End of London and ran a canteen in King’s Cross Station for troops in transit.

Other war work

Shetland women in both town and country turned their hands to knitting and sewing for the troops. The Shetland branch of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild (QMNG) was formed on the 3rd September 1914; the presidents were Mrs. Bruce of Sumburgh and Lady Nicolson of Brough Lodge Fetlar. The QMNG had an organiser for each district, and local committees. The headquarters of the Lerwick branch was in the County Hall, and members gathered there to knit. As well as items for the troops, they made garments for wounded men including one-legged trousers and one-armed shirts. In the course of the war over 15,000 garments were made: pairs of socks, scarves, helmets, jerseys, wristlets, mittens, gloves, operation stockings and sleeping socks. Money was also raised, £406.12s.1d, and when the war ended, the balance of £60 19s 3d was put towards the War Memorial.

Other ways in which country people could help were “National Egg Collection” and “Moss Days”. The National Egg Collection for the Wounded gave eggs to soldiers in hospital; people gathered up their eggs and sent them to Lerwick, then Aberdeen; during the war, 3,000,636 eggs were collected, and £216 19s 7d was raised. There were two “Moss Days”, on 9 August 1917 and in August 1918. Spagnum moss was in demand for anti-septic dressings, and the Shetland moss was said to be the very finest and purest quality. On the first “Moss Day”, men, women and children went out into the hill and gathered 2,500 large sackfuls. The following year they managed 3,000 sacks.

The Shetland Times Cigarette Fund sent 1,589500 cigarettes to the front; the Shetland News Christmas Pudding Fund of October 1916 raised £281 11s 6d.
Nor was Shetland generosity confined to its own men. At the end of the war the “Save the Children” fund for the destitute and starving children in Germany and other defeated countries received 1,518 garments and £122.

Women also took over some administration work. Mrs E Drummond, Papa Stour, Miss Joann Charleson, Sandsting and Aithsting and Miss H Nicolson, Whalsay joined Miss Mathewson in Yell and Miss Morrison, Burra, as Parish Council Registrars. Christina Jamieson remained on the Lerwick School Board; she was joined in 1915 by Mrs J Brown Jnr. From 1915, Jamieson also served on the County Committee on Secondary Education. The Shetland News of 1919 spoke of her as having acted as chairman of the Lerwick School Board in the absence of Mr M L Manson. Mrs Leslie of Quendale went on the school board for Dunrossness, Sandwick, Cunningsburgh and Fair Isle. Mrs Nicol became the vice-president of the Lerwick Literary and Debating Society; from 1915, Miss Harrison was its treasurer. 1917 was also the first year of the North Star Cinema Co Ltd, with Miss Mann as the General Manager.

The Women’s Services

In 1917 the Government created the first women’s Services: the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Over 100,000 women joined up, ready for a life of adventure, and a wage.

Lerwick was a Naval Base from 1914, and typists and telephone operators were needed. Miss Lena Mouat was the first, in March 1915, followed by Mary Inkster in September 1916, and Maggie Clarke and E A E Smith in March 1917. By the end of the war, 16 women worked under the charge of Lena Mouat, now assistant principal, WRNS, and her fellow assistant principal, Muriel McKenzie-Grieve. Apparently the Navy would have liked more women operators, but there were not enough Shetland girls with the training.

The Shetland Museum and Archives have a number of photos of the WRNS, and they’re a very cheery looking bunch. The “official” photograph, by R Ramsay, gives more details of where each worked. Margaret (Peggy) F J Aitken of King Harald St, Kate and Ruby Anderson, of 16 St Magnus St, G Dorothy Anderson of “Laarsund”, Hillswick, Mary A Garriock, Mounthooly St, Maggie Irvine, Albany St, Christina Janet Williamson Kerr, Moors, Sandwick, Britta Astrid Laurenson, King Harald St, and Nellie J Tulloch, King Harald St, were telephone operators, in the telephone office. Pauline Moorcroft was in the store office; Maggie Clark was in the captain’s office. Florence Ogilvy Inkster, Charlotte St, was a typist in the sailing office; Elizabeth M Shearer, Hillhead and Annie E Smith, North Ness were typists; Mary L Inkster and Edith A E Smith were shorthand typists – Smith was in the admiral’s office. Mouat received the MBE for her work. Some of these WRNS marched in the Victory Parade in London, on 19 July 1919.

Joann B Hawick, MA, PO, of 10 Derby St, Leith, and Mary Laurenson, Gorie, Bressay, were also in the WRNS but seem to have served elsewhere.

Women from Shetland also served in the WAAC. Alexina Nicolson, of Sellafirth, Yell, was in the Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Corps (re-named from the Women’ Army Auxiliary Corps in April 1918) and served in France. Many men suffered from shell-shock, and Nicolson was perhaps affected with something like that too. Her great-nephew, Willie Halcrow, told me that after sending a beautiful tinted photograph of herself from France, and saying she’d write once she’d moved to her new address, she didn’t communicate with her family again. They thought she had lost her life until 1955, when the local minister received a letter from her, asking for a record of her birth, as she was coming up to pension age. The minister told her niece, who got in touch with Alexina. She’d married late on in life, but was now widowed and living in Bedfordshire. She and her elder sister, Jessie, met up in Aberdeen in 1963, “but,” Willie said, “my grandmother never asked her where she’d been, or what had happened.”

The RAF and WRAF were created simultaneously in 1918, and four Shetland women were in the Women’s Royal Air Force. Charlotte W Robertson, Voehead, Weisdale, began as a clerk with the WAAC, on 29 October 1917, then, when it was formed in April 1918, she transferred to the WRAF at no 1, Fighting School, RAF Turnberry, Ayrshire. After the war she married John Gilbert Williamson of Bixter. Her son Brian said that his mother rarely spoke about her wartime experiences, but did mention that a plane coming in to land had crashed into the hut where they were stationed. They could look up into the rafters and see the crashed plane. She had also spoken about knowing a Jimmy McCudden who was killed in a plane crash – Major James McCudden was the most decorated pilot in the RAF at the age of only 22: VC, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar and MM. He began flight training in 1916, and was swiftly promoted to flight sergeant in 20 Squadron, then to 29 Squadron, instructor, then, in August 1917, to flight commander in 56 Squadron. One of his best known exploits was a dog-fight which downed the German air ace Werner Voss. His final total was 57 “kills”. He died in July 1918 when his plane crashed during take-off.

Georgina Josephine Scott was born in Agnesville, Sandness, 1896; she was the daughter of the last “Scott of Melby”. She signed up to the WRAF on 1 October 1917, and became a sergeant. She later married Thomas C Spence, Telegraphist.
Barbara Catherine Henry of Hillhead, Gutcher, North Yell, was a section leader in the WRAF. Her father was Davie Henry, the shopkeeper at Gutcher; one of her brothers died in 1916, at the Somme, and another died in 1918, at Cambrai.

Agnes G Tait of Nesthouse, Aith, was also a section leader – her discharge certificate adds “Mobile”. She enrolled in August 1918, in Edinburgh, when she was 22, and was demobilized on 15 October 1919 – at that point she was at the RAF Depot, Uxbridge. Her Air Force Trade is given as “Cook”. There is however a family tradition that before she joined the WRAF she was a nurse in France. She went into service with a Mrs Silver when the war was over, then met and married Harold “Tiny” Gibbs. They moved to Kenya in the 1920s, where Aggie had an adventurous life, culminating in the MauMau insurgencies, where she slept with a gun under her pillow, in case of night attacks on their cattle. She returned to Aith around 1970, and lived there with her brother and sister until her death in 1981. Her great-niece, Betty Ferrie, remembers a leopard skin draped over the back of her settee: “She had shot it herself. She was a real character, very adventurous – she’d have been game for anything.”

By the end of the Great War, over 100,000 women had enrolled in the official services, and a much greater number had been involved as volunteers. As well as that, huge numbers had been involved in keeping Britain going while their men were fighting and dying overseas, and it was this contribution to civil life which won women the vote.

This article is adapted from Marsali Taylor’s forthcoming book, ‘Women’s Suffrage in Shetland’, which will be available from local shops soon.


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